Monroe Park: the City responds

Responses from Parks & Recreation and Councilman Samuels on some of the concerns highlighted by the Monroe Park campaign — specifically the homeless who live and or congregate in the park.

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The Monroe Park Master plan as a whole reads like any strategic city revitalization plan, and it’s presented with hundreds of historical pictures, informative graphics, and diagrams. There are, however, a few controversial statements that stand out.

When pinpointing problems with the current park, the plan points to the homeless who live and or congregate in the park:

50 years of crime and vagrancy tainted Monroe Park’s image, giving it a dangerous and uninviting reputation.”

Those park visitors who stay in the park for an extended period of time generally fall into two groups: transients and VCU students.

Further notions suggest a regular pattern of homeless occupancy:

On any given Saturday or Sunday, as many as 300 people could be seen lined up in the park, waiting to receive food being distributed by groups of volunteers.

And, to the members of city council who approved the plan, and the civic engineers who developed it:

“The homeless presence in Monroe Park poses an impediment to increased park usage.”

Folks against the plan, such as the Monroe Park campaign, have taken most issue with such statements.

Richmond City Parks and Recreation, in an e-mail, responded to questions about the statement saying “Parks are open spaces and available to all city residents and visitors. Policies governing Monroe Park are no exception.” This would suggest the present and future Monroe Park would make a welcome home to the homeless.

5th District Councilman Charles Samuels, a man who has been a frequent target of the Monroe Park campaign, interpreted the plan’s words a little differently:

“When there is an overwhelming presence of any one population, for example, if there were only police officers in Monroe Park, it would feel a little authoritarian, wouldn’t it?” said Samuels. “We would want the park to be safe, but we wouldn’t want the police presence scaring people away. So I think it’s like that.”

Samuels went on compare Monroe Park to the struggling Regency Mall.

“Over the years Regency has changed. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down. There is not a lot to draw people there, and they are looking to do things to draw folks to the area.”

“The goal is to preserve the community,” said Samuels.

The Plan’s estimated cost is about $7.8 million for all three phases, and according to the City, “the cost could be significantly lower when the project is put out for bid,” due to the economic downturn.

Samuels loosely estimated more than $3 million would come from the city for underground sewer and utility work. The rest of the above ground project money would be raised from private funders but none have come forward beyond small funding packages, such as from the Friends of Monroe Park, for flower bed projects.

As of press time, funding continues to be a deterrent in starting the plan. Parks & Rec said they are “still seeking funding for Phase One.”

Samuels couldn’t confirm a ground breaking date for the plan, but he shared his hopes: “In my perfect world… the park would close and reopen between Monument Ave. 10 K’s.”

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Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner is a freelance journalist living in the Bellevue neighborhood of Richmond’s Northside. He is a regular contributor to Pacifica’s Free Speech Radio News, and is a volunteer manager with WRIR 97.3 LP-FM. He specializes in reporting on local politics and the environment, but spends most of his time looking at food blogs with his tiny dog in his lap.

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